The femme fatale of this wacky game-show/CIA hit-man movie is Julia Roberts, who, over coffee in the film's third act, quotes Nietzsche: "The man who despises himself still respects himself as he who despises." This kernel of wisdom comes too late for Chuck Barris, who has spent his whole life ambitiously despising himself. It's difficult to know whether Barris, who has much to atone for (The Gong Show, The Gong Show Movie, killing 33 people), despises himself for his past sins or if he sins because of his self-loathing, but it is clear that he was unhappy with himself and took his life on a colorful, reckless path to deal with it.
Based on his 1981 "unauthorized autobiography," Confessions of a Dangerous Mind traces the rise and falls of Barris (Sam Rockwell), an obscure man turned obscure celebrity. Beginning as a page at ABC Studios, Barris climbs the ranks until he is pitching his own shows to the network president. His brainchild: a game show where young single women select one of three young, unseen men for a possible date, based on their answers to "important" questions. Sound familiar? It's The Dating Game.
Before success strikes Barris, fate does -- in the form of CIA agent Jim Byrd (George Clooney) who offers Barris a deal he can't refuse: to become a special agent for the CIA too -- a hit man. Once The Dating Game takes off, he has the perfect cover. Babysitting googoo-eyed twentysomethings by day, whacking foreign operatives by night. Simple. Fun. Patriotic.
Complicating things (as it will do) is true love. Barris spends years trying to figure out a place in his heart for young, perky Penny (Drew Barrymore). Their open relationship weathers poorly over the years (funny how that happens) and his infidelity soon gets the best of them -- forcing him to confront the fact that his life of self-hatred and aggressive self-involvement has prevented him from learning how to love (funny how that happens). Cancelled shows, failed relationships, and murder anxiety take their toll and Barris breaks down -- nervously, that is. The result: endlessly standing naked in front of a TV, unkempt, dirty, out of it. Perhaps this is hell for bad TV producers -- frozen in front of a TV with nothing good on for all eternity. That's karma. But Barris snaps out of it and writes a book about his life, purging himself of his Technicolor transgressions. The rest: history.
George Clooney marks his directorial debut with this film, and it is a marvelously accomplished first go. The style of the film is a colorful, moody patchwork of vivid lighting, clever music, funny editing, and goofy casting -- very much in keeping with the '60s and '70s game show/spy fantasia that was Barris' life. Would that the Austin Powers franchise had the sense of genuine fun and shadowed homage. Would also that all first-time directors could so cannily navigate in and out of riotously funny absurdity through to real pathos -- as in the scene where a paranoid, delusional Barris, in the middle of a Gong Show taping, begs a stagehand to get it over with and kill him. The world, for a moment, is frozen in fear. That this occurs on the set of The Gong Show is hilarious yet somehow so profound that we cannot laugh. Just as effective: when Barris turns the tables on the CIA mole that's been sent to kill him. What could be/should be very funny is darkened by a reprise of Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" and by the straight-playing real acting of its stars -- well-timed and superbly composed by Clooney.
Rockwell provides an uncanny likeness to the look and spirit of King Gong. Snarky, twitchy, leering, he channels considerable authenticity from a mostly unlikable but compulsively watchable dark clown. We never quite sympathize with him, nor does the film try to get us under his skin. It's unnecessary. As an audience, we view as one would rubbernecking past a circus-y train wreck -- all bright colors and strange messes. Best to view from several feet back, but, unlike anything else associated with Chuck Barris, this is must-see TV. -- Bo List
The historical drama Rabbit-Proof Fence is Australian director Phillip Noyce's first project in his home country in more than a decade -- a decade spent helming such forgettable Hollywood director-for-hire projects as Sliver, The Bone Collector, and The Saint. And while it's a welcome departure from that sort of product, Rabbit-Proof Fence, in its own way, is just as anonymous as those films.
Noyce, who also directed the well-received The Quiet American, set to open in Memphis next month, puts very little personality into this tale of three Aboriginal girls who are abducted from their outback home and taken to a government training school. Yet the material is so compelling on its own terms that it seems sufficient for Noyce to get out of the way and merely present the facts in such a simple and direct way. And perhaps Noyce deserves credit for his restraint and for his refusal to exploit the material for easy sentimentality or pathos.
Set in Western Australia in 1931, the film is adapted from a book by Australian writer Doris Pilkington that recounts the true childhood story of her mother, Molly (Everlyn Sampi), then 14, her aunt, Daisy (Tianna Sansbury), then 8, and their cousin Gracie (Laura Monaghan), then 10, who were abducted from their mothers by government agents and transported 1,200 miles away to the state-run Moore River training school.
The film, dedicated to the "stolen generations" of Aborigine children, documents a controversial passage in Australian history in which official government policy (enforced into the 1970s, the film tells us) was to take "half-caste" children from their Aboriginal homes and train them (to be house servants and factory workers, basically) to live in the "white" world.
The government rationale for this policy is embodied by A.O. Neville (a historical figure, here played by Kenneth Branagh), the administrator of the relocation policy, who exudes a well-meaning yet sinister racial paternalism. An amateur eugenicist, Neville is shown giving a slide show about the "native problem" to a ladies-who-lunch crowd, demonstrating how, by taking half-caste children out of their Aboriginal communities, it is possible to "breed the color out" in just a couple of generations and insisting that, "in spite of himself, the native must be helped."
The offspring of Aboriginal women and since-departed white construction workers who helped build the titular fence (a modest wood-and-wire contraption that spans the continent and separates white-owned farmland from the pestilence of the country's rabbit population), Molly, Daisy, and Gracie are marked for removal. The abduction scene itself, in which a government officer in a jeep chases down the fleeing girls and their mothers outside the dusty, desert depot of Jigalong and forcibly removes the girls from their mothers' clutches, is the film's most harrowing and memorable scene.
The girls are taken to the Moore River school, where nuns teach them to be good, Christian, white girls who perform manual labor and scold them to "stop that jabbering" when they try to talk to each other in their native language. They run away, following the fence on a months-long trek home, pursued by a tracker from the school. And it is this journey, oddly calm and free of narrative tension, that forms the bulk of the film.
This slow-paced, naturalistic stretch, in which the untrained young actresses traverse the country's outback, is as likely to remind filmgoers of some of the Iranian films that have played Memphis in the last few years as it is Nicholas Roeg's superficially similar outback drama Walkabout.
Rabbit-Proof Fence is a subject of much debate in Australia, where this history is still very controversial and a sore point for a government that refuses to apologize for the policy. But American audiences need not be familiar with the political history of Australia to get the point. This is a film whose legitimate sense of outrage rhymes all too closely with our own history. -- Chris Herrington